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Backpacker Magazine – January/February 2010

America's Worst Trail: A Love Story

Is the reward always equal to the effort? Uh...maybe, says this bloodied, bruised, and bandaged reader.

by: David Hiscoe

(Illustration by Marcos Chin)
(Illustration by Marcos Chin)
(Illustration by Marcos Chin)
(Illustration by Marcos Chin)

The encounter reminded me that I started my own AT trek, in 1973, primarily with the hope of meeting some compatible hippie woman on some heart-stopping ridge. But I’ve long since learned that when it comes to the Long Trail, it takes primal urges even more powerful than romance to keep me coming back.


Consider the name itself. On some elemental level, the Green Mountain Club employed brilliant marketing when staffers named the trail in 1910. It’s the Long Trail, after all. It’s that simple. Let it resonate in your mouth a bit—it’s about as mythic as you could ask for. I’ve always been a sucker for names that suggest an archetypal quest: the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes, the Long March, the Grand Tetons, the Great Plains. At its very core, backpacking is mythic, even sacramental. Like pilgrims who honor the gods by suffering through impossible journeys on sacred routes, we swing out of our cars, pull on the ritual gear, and start up our trails. What self-respecting young person—even if her biggest dream is to grow up and be a jolly investment banker—could resist a journey on something called the Long Trail?


The very name triggers memories of pilgrimages that stir something fundamental in just about all of us. At each trailhead, we feel ourselves become somebody stronger and more heroic. With ritualistic headbands, beef jerky, and clothes from the feathers of birds, we assume some deeper character and hoist on something of the vast historical trips that our ancestors endured. At the very least, a week on the trail satisfies some soul-deep need that keeps us from stumbling out into the streets en masse and flogging ourselves with penitence chains or acting out some other demented, destructive need to connect to something more real than our desk jobs. Be honest. Who hasn’t, at the start of every trip, felt a little like he was heading out for Normandy or joining Boone on a scouting trip for Newfound Gap? Perhaps the religious among us feel like they’re setting out for Canterbury. When we jauntily swing that pack on and set foot to dirt, we’re stepping out on a long and noble trail indeed. 


There’s no reason to sugarcoat the final reason why the Long Trail perfectly captures the seduction of backpacking: Hiking this path, above all, is a miserable, dangerous experience. There’s a reason I come back each time with some body part broken or torn. As a hiking trail, it’s the mother of all disasters. I could play the death card and tell the story about the teenager who was killed trying to cross the Clarendon Gorge, right in front of me, in 1973. But that story, as we used to say at the time, is a little heavy.


Instead, I’ll start with my favorite piece of LT trivia. Check out the Long Trail article on Wikipedia. It starts out flatly enough, with a couple of short paragraphs of the usual “it was started a long time ago, is maintained by a club, and goes from here to there” stuff. Then it quickly veers into the absurd, with the bulk of the article being about the “curiosity” that folks seem to go missing or otherwise come to untimely ends on it. “The Long Trail,” Wikipedia recently stated in one of its famously dynamic entries, “has gained notoriety due to the fact that at least four people (possibly as many as eight or nine) inexplicably vanished ... between 1942 and 1950. Only one body was subsequently found in puzzling circumstances and the fate of the other missing persons remains a complete mystery to this day.” That’s it—a paragraph of trail data, then a wildly illogical leap to an obsessive outpouring of ancient unpleasantries.


On one level, this is just the sort of strange “reporting” that drives purists nuts about Wikipedia. But the last thing I intend here is to mock the unknown author—because he or she, from my hard-won perspective, got it exactly, if unintentionally, right. A hike on the Long Trail is like some sort of bizarre vacation in a wooded Bermuda Triangle.


Not because you’ll disappear, but because of the mysterious state of the treadway itself. Partly because it’s an eroded, ankle-torquing mess, partly because of the terrain, but mostly, I’ve come to suspect, because the folks who laid it out did not really believe that anyone would actually hike it. On the northern two-thirds of the Long Trail—and I swear against my mother’s good name that this is not an exaggeration—the next horizontal nine feet forward is as likely as not attained first by dropping down 16 feet vertically. The method of getting there is varied. There’s the “Christamighty, that’s a 5.9 stretch of granite and I don’t have a rope and besides folks don’t usually try to climb down a pitch because gravity really throws your balance off” descent. Or the “If I grab those ragged, much-abused remains of a birch root, and slide over to that muddy place there, then throw my pack into those bushes and maybe step lightly on that wet, mossy pile of crumbling limestone, I’ll only fall five or six feet” technique. At the bottom, you wipe off the body fluids and scope the way up with all the care that Whymper applied to the first Matterhorn ascent. At the top, you’ve just knocked off another three yards.





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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Luke
Jan 13, 2012

But it really sounds like some of those commenting on this couldn't pick out a well written article if it hit them dead between the eyes. The article wasn't meant to be a description of a trail, but rather an interesting personal narrative. So many seemed to be offended by the article's title yet failed to see the intentional irony and see past the words. If the author truly felt this was the worst trail then why would the author be in love with it and keep coming back. Not every bit of writing needs to be completely straight forward, leaving nothing to the imagination. Maybe some were put off by the descriptions of the ruggedness of the trail. However, I'm sure I'm not the only one that found this narrative exciting and committed the Long Trail to memory as something to attempt. As for Stu Marks, way to fill a stereotype by taking joy in someone's pain. Someone who has never done anything to hurt you. Someone you don't even know.

Mike
Jan 13, 2012

People are reading too much into the title. Great article. Well written and makes me want get out of the ADK's and get into Vermont for once...

Jim Campbell
Jan 12, 2012

Read the whole article. It is a love story and very cleverly written. Get past the title and enjoy.

Anna Huthmaker aka Mud Butt
Jan 12, 2012

This is flat out, some of the best writing I have ever read in Backpacker Magazine! Thank you for making me laugh, wince and think. I can't wait to read some of your other stuff!

Robert
Jun 03, 2010

We live next to the Long Trail just 30 miles from the Canadian border and hike it almost daily and cover the northern 2/3rds every year. I realize it's tough, but the "worst"? No....on the contrary IMHO it's one of the best in the east. Wild, challenging, still fairly quiet and the closest you can get to true "backpacking" in the east outside the 100 mile wilderness.

Due to the lack of detail about the actual trail and the narcissistic ranting of the author....the title should have been "Americas worst hiker: A whiner story"

Spiderbite
Mar 23, 2010

I thru-hiked the Long Trail in the summer of '09. From my expereince (and two fellow hikers who had previously completed the AT in '06), the LT is a whole different beast. A good day in the norther 2/3 would be 14 miles. And that was a long, grueling day. However, the beauty of the trail, the rich tradition that the people of Vermont share with it and its hikers, the physical grind, and the comroderie of fellow hikers made it a wonderful trip overall (and I cannot forget the Inn at Long Trail, a quintessential place for any hiker to visit before the long sleep) and I look forward to going back again. Three weeks is doable (take a brisk warm up over five days on the south end before tackling the final 170 in the north). A highly recommended hike, thought!

Spiderbite
Mar 23, 2010

I thru-hiked the Long Trail in the summer of '09. From my expereince (and two fellow hikers who had previously completed the AT in '06), the LT is a whole different beast. A good day in the norther 2/3 would be 14 miles. And that was a long, grueling day. However, the beauty of the trail, the rich tradition that the people of Vermont share with it and its hikers, the physical grind, and the comroderie of fellow hikers made it a wonderful trip overall (and I cannot forget the Inn at Long Trail, a quintessential place for any hiker to visit before the long sleep) and I look forward to going back again. Three weeks is doable (take a brisk warm up over five days on the south end before tackling the final 170 in the north). A highly recommended hike, thought!

David Hiscoe
Feb 06, 2010

Hi folks:

Thanks for the comments. Somehow, the first sentence of the article was left off the online version. It's "I finished the Vicodin prescription in 10 days."

Jeff
Jan 31, 2010

Geez everybody...... gita lief.

Hawkshadow
Jan 25, 2010

Sounds like a lovely hike.
I'd go with you anytime. We could start an over the hill group. Then you would have friends to carry you out. I've done it before.

Gar Foss
Jan 21, 2010

As a Vermonter, and having thru-hiked the 275 mile Long Trail myself, and I was a little upset with the title of the article. America's Worst Trail? Come on! Challenging? Absolutely. Physically Demanding? Hell yes. But to label it as "america's worst" is just plain absurd. Had the author thru-hiked the AT at the same age he tried hiking the LT, he would have said the same thing about that. I fear the label could deter future would-be hikers from enjoying the Long Trail. But at the same time, hey less crowds in the cabins, right?

Aaron M
Jan 21, 2010

Politics do not belong in the backcountry. A grade of F- for a poorly written and self incriminating bit of ramble. BUT hey, i'm an NRA card carrying southerner.

Jim "GitRdone"
Jan 16, 2010

Although I have not had the pleasure of hiking the Vermont Long Trail, I would highly recommend a book entitled "The Ordinary Adventurer" authored by Jan Leitschuh. Jan has a great attitude about her Long Trail adventure and this was her prelude to thru hiking the AT. I thought David's account of hiking the Long Trail was humorous. It confirmed he "Hiked his own Hike" however physically challenging it was for him. Good job David and enjoyed your starting the article with "But". Also, good luck on finishing the trail...like my trail name says, just GitRdone.

Jim "GitRdone"
Jan 16, 2010

Although I have not had the pleasure of hiking the Vermont Long Trail, I would highly recommend a book entitled "The Ordinary Adventurer" authored by Jan Leitschuh. Jan has a great attitude about her Long Trail adventure and this was her prelude to thru hiking the AT. I thought David's account of hiking the Long Trail was humorous. It confirmed he "Hiked his own Hike" however physically challenging it was for him. Good job David and enjoyed your starting the article with "But". Also, good luck on finishing the trail...like my trail name says, just GitRdone.

Jonathan
Jan 16, 2010

There is a purpose behind starting a sentence with but. It drops the reader into the middle of the story. Middle school teachers will tell you that it is a hard rule, don't start with but, but! it can be effective.

Emily Hogan
Jan 15, 2010

Loved David's article, and I appreciate the reminder that this passion we all pursue has a price.

Stormy
Jan 14, 2010

What a wonderful trail to hike and yes it is a little tough but thats what makes it worth it. Slips, trips and falls happen everywhere and its a good thing it happened close to the a trail head. I am sure he will go back to finish.

Dennis
Jan 14, 2010

You people are ignorant!

Dennis
Jan 14, 2010

You people are ignorant!

Alice
Jan 14, 2010

One aspect of hiking is to develop the skill to NOT fall down on rough terrain. Learn to recognize the pitfalls before you proceed. Learn to use more care on potentially dangerous footing. Anyone can fall and sustain an injury, but the author seems to be a slow learner.

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